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A Tree Fell on My Car in the Bay Area. What Do I Do?

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A silver car is photographed almost completely covered by a large tree that's fallen onto it. Above, the sky is bright blue.
A large tree fell and damaged two cars on Parker Avenue in San Francisco after heavy rainstorms on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

The Bay Area is enduring another intense storm, and as the rain falls, trees are coming down with it.

But what if a natural disaster strikes your vehicle or home — literally?

Keep reading for our tips on how to remain safe if a tree has fallen on your car or property — and which city departments to contact if you ever encounter an “act of God.”

A tree fell on my car. Now what?

Katina Papson, a San Francisco-based artist and educator, said she’ll never forget her initial reaction to the photos.

More on California Weather

While Papson and her husband were visiting the East Coast to ring in the 2023 New Year, a neighbor sent the couple some snapshots of their 2011 Subaru Outback covered in mud, foliage and a lot of concrete.

“When my husband showed it to me, I just laughed,” she said. “Honestly, I was like, ‘This is ridiculously unlucky.'”

The cause? A landslide brought on by a torrential downpour that became too much for a concrete wall lining two residences in Papson’s neighborhood of Glen Park. The extra weight from the rain caused the wall to buckle, burying Papson’s vehicle.

“Our first reaction was obviously shock,” Papson said. “And then, the next one was, ‘OK, we need to call the insurance company, and I don’t remember if we even have coverage that would take care of any of this.'”

Rain pours down on a navy blue Subaru Outback that is surrounded by rubble and debris from a landslide that totaled the vehicle.
Katina Papson’s Subaru Outback was totaled during storms on New Year’s Eve when a concrete wall that lined two San Francisco residences in Glen Park buckled, sending debris and rubble onto the car. (Courtesy Katina Papson)

Papson is just one of many people who’ve discovered firsthand how these kinds of storms can bring down trees, topple walls and leave damaging debris everywhere — and that sometimes, those items fall onto your property. So, if you wake up to a tree (or concrete wall) on top of your vehicle, what do you do?

1. Stay back, stay safe

First, assess the damage — from a safe distance. PG&E advises people to avoid downed power lines and call 911 immediately.

2. Tell your city

How you contact your city will depend on where you live.

In San Francisco, you can either download the SF311 app or visit SF311.org. You can also call 311 and ask to be connected to the Department of Public Works to report a downed tree; DPW manages StreetTreeSF, a program that professionally maintains and cares for more than 124,000 street trees growing throughout the city. According to its website, street trees are pruned on a three- to five-year cycle.

Similarly to PG&E, SF311 advises residents who see a downed tree that has struck power lines, vehicles or buildings to call 911. Be sure to take detailed notes of the damage: Write down the street address, vehicle license plate number (if a car has been hit) and nearest cross street to where the fallen tree or limb is located. You can also fill out a tree maintenance request form online, depending on whether you notice a tree that appears to be in danger of falling or one that has fallen and caused surrounding damage. You can upload photos with the request and include a brief description of what occurred.

Other ways to report a fallen tree in the Bay Area

OAK311: In Oakland, you can report emergencies like downed trees or limbs, flooding, sewer overflows and street signal outages to OAK311 by dialing 311 or calling 510-615-5566. On the OAK311 home page, residents can also submit reports for all nonemergency issues.

SeeClickFix: This 311-based online reporting service works by city. In Alameda, Berkeley, Emeryville, South San Francisco and beyond, residents can visit the SeeClickFix home page, create an account and report and upload photos of downed trees or limbs, street signal outages, illegal dumping and other safety concerns.

Urban Forestry: Berkeley residents wanting to request the removal of a city tree can call 311 if it is within city limits, or dial 510-981-2489. You also can email a request with photos and necessary street information to trees@cityofberkeley.info.

If you live outside these areas, your city or county may have its own process for reporting a fallen tree. Google “report a fallen tree” plus the name of your city or county to find the website, email address or phone number that’s recommended as the fastest way to alert local authorities to the hazard.

A gigantic tree with dark bark has fallen to the ground with thick branches busted open to reveal tan wooden insides. A black Jeep has taken on large fallen branches and debris to the left of the disaster as wet soil and muddy puddles surround the area.
A massive blue spruce fell on power lines in Oakland during storms on Jan. 4, 2023, damaging the electrical panel at a nearby home and causing an outage. The city has received more than 324 tree-related service requests since New Year’s Eve due to torrential rains and wind. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)

3. Document everything for your insurance

Take photos and document everything. Snap photos from multiple angles of your vehicle or property, and write down the date and time(s) the damage happened. Be sure to do all of this before your car gets safely moved.

You’ll also want to gather receipts: namely, receipts of recent car maintenance you paid for. This could include fresh tires, engine parts and even a new radio or speakers.

For those who’ve experienced unexpected property damage like Papson, it’s important to have all these receipts, photos and files to prepare for the next step: calling your auto insurance company.

4. Start the conversation with your insurance provider

Be prepared to talk to a lot of people about your claim. “You will start to see that there are just so many individuals in the insurance companies that you will have to talk to, like an auto damage adjuster, and then there’s a supplement adjuster,” Papson said. “They are all in communication with the body shop — and with you — so there’s a lot of communication.”

One tip Papson said she found useful was downloading her insurance company’s app, which she used to file a claim and upload all the photos she took. She also recommends creating a simple spreadsheet with insurance policy information, important phone numbers and individuals you speak to along the way.

“One thing that you’ll notice about the auto adjusters is there are less of them now since COVID, and they are starting to do assessments via FaceTime,” she said.

It’s all the more reason to be diligent when photographing and documenting all damages.

“Communicate and advocate strongly for yourself,” she said. “You’ve got to just keep calling the insurance company — and it’s an incredible amount of time.”

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5. How to file a claim with the city for your damages

If you live in San Francisco, once you’ve notified DPW and filed a report with your insurance company, it’s time to file a claim with the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office for damages to your vehicle and/or property if, say, a city tree did in fact fall onto and damage your property. (Here’s a PDF link to the direct form.)

According to the city attorney’s website, “claims for death or injury to persons or damage to personal property must be filed within six months after the accident giving rise to the claim.”

Once a claim is filed, you should receive a letter of acknowledgment with a claim number notifying you that the claim has been received. Be sure to write this important information down and reference it as you follow up on the case’s status.

A Subaru Outback is buried beneath rubble and dirt from a landslide. One worker stands at the top of a hill with two houses behind him. Yellow caution tape blocks off the perimeter.
A concrete wall in the Glen Park neighborhood buckled under the torrential downpour, which caused a landslide and totaled Katina Papson’s Subaru Outback (bottom left). (Courtesy Katina Papson)

6. Seek transportation support if you’re left temporarily without a car

First, check whether your vehicle’s insurance coverage plan includes providing you with the use of a rental car.

If it doesn’t, consider telling friends and co-workers about your situation and requesting to carpool. You can also brush up on your public transportation routes, much like Papson did: For the past two and a half months, she’s carpooled with friends and ridden Muni.

“We did have an umbrella coverage plan with Geico. But under that plan, we didn’t have a rental car. So I took the bus up until last week when I just bought another car,” she said.

7. Lastly, make sure you know your car’s worth

Papson said that, in the end, she received under $10,000 for her totaled Subaru. She pointed out that the used-car market is “bizarre” right now and that people are selling their vehicles for significantly more than the Kelley Blue Book value — all of which went into her decision to go with Geico’s assessment to total the vehicle.

“Be diligent about your paperwork, and be ready to go back and forth with the insurance company,” she said. “Sometimes, you can find listings online for the same car, like a used-car listing. [Your insurer is] going to look at the Kelley Blue Book value, which isn’t accurate anymore. …

“There’s so many ways that you can kind of fight with them a little bit and stand up for yourself.”

Tell us: What else do you need information about?

At KQED News, we know it can sometimes be hard to track down the answers to navigate life in the Bay Area in 2024. We’ve published clear, helpful explainers and guides about issues like COVID-19, how to cope with intense winter weather, and how to exercise your right to protest safely.

So tell us: What do you need to know more about? Tell us, and you could see your question answered online or on social media. What you submit will make our reporting stronger and help us decide what to cover here on our site and on KQED Public Radio, too.

This story was originally published on December 21, 2023.

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